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The kings of New York death metal known to the common man only as Suffocation have had quite an impressive run in their 25 years or so of existing. After injecting the death metal genre with a lethal dose of brutality with genre classic Effigy of the Forgotten, the band went on to record the similarly excellent Breeding the Spawn and Pierced from Within. After calling it quits in 1998 with the EP Despise the Sun, the band took five years off before returning with original drummer Mike Smith, original guitarist Guy Marchais, and then-Decrepit Birth bassist Derek Boyer to unleash Souls to Deny, a self titled album, and Blood Oath upon the world. The three records, while still regarded highly among extreme metal fans, weren't considered to be on the same legendary level as their material in the 1990s was. Fast forward four years and one more Mike Smith departure later to Pinnacle of Bedlam, the band's seventh full length record and ninth when counting the aforementioned Despise the Sun and their debut EP Human Waste. Having taken on a more modern riff style and a thrashier edge musically, this is most definitely the best album Suffocation have made since reuniting.
Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Bedlam goes by pretty quickly, as is the case with many death metal records, both past and present. The big musical difference between this record and the past three Suffocation records is that while they were more on the plodding, crushing side of death metal, this record takes on a much more thrash influenced frenzy of furious guitars, crazy, blast filled drumming (courtesy of the returning Dave Culross), and the most modern tech death riffing the band has ever employed. The difference between Suffocation and many other modern death metal bands however is that Suffocation still manage to create a memorable song with this new guitar style; whereas many other newer death metal bands take the hypertechnical and instantly forgettable tech death approach pioneered by Brain Drill and the second Necrophagist album, Suffocation on Bedlam retain a sense of structure and repeating parts, thus leading to the music staying inside your head for many minutes after a song has ended. The signature elements of the Suffocation sound, including hammer blasting and slamming breakdowns, are still included on this record, although admittedly they aren't as prevalent here as they were in the past, with hammer blasting only appearing on the album's title track, "Inversion", and the re-recorded "Beginning of Sorrow", and breakdowns only really appearing in the true sense of the word on "Cycles of Suffering", "Rapture of Revocation", and the aforementioned "Beginning the Sorrow". Probably the most memorable tracks on the album are the two previously released "singles" of the album, "Cycles of Suffering" with its unrelenting atmosphere and slam filled middle and end (although, much like the pre-release version, the beginning of the song sounds cut off, as if we're joining the song in progress), and "As Grace Descends" which is the most thrash influenced song on the record, especially near the end where it takes on a mutated punk-meets-Slayer-gone-technical form, as well as "Sullen Days", which is Suffocation's take on death/doom at a more midpaced tempo. The song also features clean guitars, a first for a band as famously brutal as Suffocation. The only real flaw I can find with the record is the production style. Being the most modern sounding Suffocation album musically, the production also is brought into the modern era on this record; oh how I wish it stayed back 15 years ago like the last three records had. The record has very little low end, leading the guitars to sound very thin and hollow. The whole affair is also brickwalled to oblivion as well, as is common in modern album production, although it is nowhere near as bad as some other records. The bass is audible at least, so it has that going for it. Overall on the production side of things, it's not my own preferred style of album sound, but it beats the crap out of the mix on Nile's latest record, which I consider to be one of those records you show an aspiring metal album producer and tell him "This is NOT how to mix an album."
In terms of instrumentation, all five members of Suffocation bring their A game on Bedlam. Terrance Hobbs and Guy Marchais slay on the guitars, never letting up for a second. Derek Boyer too is thrashing away on the bass, although he's mostly following what the guitars are playing. Frank Mullen, true to being one of the greatest extreme metal vocalists of all time, does not disappoint, tearing at his vocal chords with such guttural groans and grunts that it sounds like the entire world could be quaked into perfect halves. Dave Culross, replacing the band's original skinsman Mike Smith, may just be the most responsible for this updated sound Suffocation have adopted, as his own style is so different from Smith's that it very well has that capability of changing a band's sound. Whereas Smith was more of a hands player than a feet player, Culross is a bit more the opposite of that, including many foot tricks that Smith never in a million years would have included. His hands are no slouches either, utilizing more common death metal fills than Smith but also providing us with more high speed traditional blasting than you can shake a Marduk album at. Smith is not left out in the rain though, as he makes a guest appearance on the re-recording of "Beginning of Sorrow" from Breeding the Spawn. An interesting thing to note is that when listening to "Beginning of Sorrow" along with "Rapture of Revocation" (the track that immediately precedes it), it is very easy to tell that Culross is drumming on "Revocation" and Smith on "Sorrow". Listen to their ride cymbals during blast beats. Culross accents his downbeats on the ride, usually with a bell hit, while no such accenting is done by Smith.
Suffocation overall have hit the extreme nail right on its metal head with Pinnacle of Bedlam, showing that even though they may be getting up there in age, they are no slouches and can still pound skulls into dust through their music. The return of Dave Culross to the drum kit may just have been the shot in the ass the band needed after three great, but slightly underwhelming, records. Even with Frank Mullen's retirement from full time touring, the band has shown that they will not be stopped and will continue to show up their hundreds, if not thousands, of imitators through simply brutal death metal. As mentioned many hundreds of words ago, Pinnacle of Bedlam is the best album Suffocation have created since their reunion a decade ago. A most high recommendation indeed.